Narrative Architects vs Storytellers: Game Designers and Story

For this scholarship review, I looked at an article from Henry Jenkins titled Game Design as Narrative Architecture. In it, Henry Jenkins and Jon McKenzie respond to one another’s ideas about Game Designers and storytellers.

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In order to categorize gaming narrative into storytelling or not, we needed to define what we consider as storytelling versus narrative. A traditional narrative has character development, a conflict, beginning middle and end. Many games have a more nonlinear narrative, having no specified order in which the plot has to take place, which hurts the definition of storytelling. If you were to tell gamers that they are playing through a narrative, they would probably give you a look and it would invoke the images of traditional choose your own adventure games. What many of the other articles have been doing was comparing games to film theory, and perhaps it is not what we should be looking at. Not all games tell stories like films do, they are a closer medium to dance or music, something that doesn’t just feed you the experience, but instead has many other facets.

Some games have narrative aspirations, with branching dialogue and moral choices within the game. Critics tend to look at very prescriptive narrative analysis, looking at what everything in the game means or symbolizes. But when you play something like Monopoly, sure you can see that there’s a vague narrative about the housing system and money trading, but in the end, you’re just going to remember rolling the dice and getting around the board. When I say that video games have fantastical narrative abilities, I don’t mean every game.

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Some games are just worlds that you are getting into and exploring yourself. You have to create a narrative, this is called emergent storytelling, meaning that you are creating the story yourself as a player. Instead of having cinema envy and only telling stories, but not having excellent gameplay, many games have drawn into how the story connects and embellishes the gameplay, not the other way around. Gameplay  is the most important part.

Even RPGs are a collaborative storytelling, meaning that you and the writers are collaborating on what is happening in the story because you are living in their world and experiencing their plot and conflict, but you are creating the story for yourself much like in a Dungeons and Dragons type game. You are as much a character in the game as the avatar.

Some games are rather episodic, due to their lack of linear involvement, meaning that you can play the game and experience a story in whatever order you like. Many Mario games are like this, meaning that you can pick whatever world you want to go into first, and live through the conflicts of the characters there, and then move onto the next one. You can’t do that in a book. You can’t just jump from chapter to chapter and expect to understand the story in the same way that you can with a game.

In that way, player participation is a detriment or threat to a lot of plots. In such open world RPGs as Skyrim, a player can directly disengage with the plot and just turn and walk in a direction and never again see the main narrative that the game was created for. If this is a good thing or a bad thing, it is up to the players to decide really. It does impact storytelling though, the whole story changes if we are suddenly not involving the main characters and companions within the narrative.

As they bring it up, Video game stories should be evaluated on a different level with different analysis than other forms of media and that alright. The appreciation of the involvement of the narrative in the games is done by the designers and the players, beyond that, the other critics don’t matter. Game designers are narrative architects, they set down the framework of the story and the player fills in the rest of the story, as narrative engagers.

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